Hey, doc. Watch what you say. Sticks and stones may break patients' bones but it turns out words – your words – may hurt them, too. A new study shows that physicians may unnecessarily frighten patients by using technical jargon instead of layman's terms for certain types of medical conditions, making them sound a lot worse than they really are. Some examples:“androgenic alopecia” instead of male pattern baldness or “myalgic encephalopathy” in place of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Researchers at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario report in the online journal PLoS One that 52 undergraduate students in a study considered disorders described in   “medicalese” to be more serious and rare than when they were cast in simple terms.  The technical talk proved confusing only for conditions (male pattern baldness, for one) that were not thought of as diseases until relatively recently.

This study follows another one by the same team that found that diseases most often in the news are perceived as more serious than ones that do not get much coverage.

Such research is part of an ongoing effort to sort out what constitutes a disease and the terminology that drug companies can use to peddle their products. A common pharma marketing ploy is to ply patients with ads (in pubs, online and on the air) pushing treatments for, say, “erectile dysfunction” or "gastroesophageal reflux disease"  instead of advertisting a therapy for impotence or heartburn. The reason: it makes consumers believe they have a serious ailment that requires urgent medical intervention instead of taking other simple measures such as changing their diet.